Monday, May 18, 2009

A Brief Time-Out in the Culture Wars

Gordon Wood is winning this blog's "Best Historian of Early America" poll---and if you already haven't, you can vote on the right sidebar over there >>>>>

According to a writer from the conservative Claremont Institute, Dr. Wood is "the favorite historian of America's liberal establishment." Well, that would actually be Howard Zinn. Be that as it may, Gordon Wood has one advantage---his scholarship is generally thought of as scrupulous and honest.

Wood offers a needed historian's perspective and point of order in our current culture wars and their attending venom, on a panel discussing Michael and Jana Novak's book Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country. [Click here to access the Google Books preview. I do not necessarily endorse the book's conclusions.]

Gordon Wood:

“The important point to make about the late 18th century, and I think Michael's correct about this, the society was very religious, much more religious than we are today. Religion really permeated American life at the end of the 18th century...In that sense we're talking about a very different world. Most ordinary people were more than just deistic or like Washington---they believed in Christianity, and believed in Christ with emotional fervor that I think Washington does not have...

I agree with Michael that it's been the last 100 years of the 20th century, in fact, the last half of the 20th century that our society has become much more secular and as a consequence we've tended to interpret the 18th century in a more secular way. But I think that's just a mistake. That was a very religious world. In fact, ordinary people were far more religious than the leaders. Washington is, among the founders, I think, probably as religious as any of them. Jefferson and Madison were, I think, truly Enlightenment figures in the sense that they had a Voltaire view of organized religion. As far as they were concerned, organized religion was a mess. But they were politicians as well and could not say too much about their views on religion.”

—Gordon Wood, NPR: On Point, February 20, 2006

And that's what we're really doing on this here blog, trying to recapture the truth about the religio-political landscape of the Founding from revision one way or the other, from Christian nationists, and from the secular nationists as well.

In another forum, Michael Novak adds:

"Please understand. We agree that the reason for the unparalleled strength of religion in America is “the separation of church and state,” as every Catholic priest and other clergymen he met, without exception, told Alexis de Tocqueville. Further, the American version of separation is quite different from the French version, which is poisonously anti-religious. (The French Jacobins, for example, placed a prostitute upon the altar of the cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris, as a symbol – of all things — for the goddess Reason.)

Jana and I do not think the American form of separation – it is accommodation, really — ought to be abridged, for it springs from Christian roots, and has a firm biblical basis. It is undergirded by this text among others: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” No doubt about it, it took Christians, Catholics especially, too long to see this; but it is undeniably part of their inheritance, which is constantly being plumbed for fresh resources.

Further, Jana and I favor the combination of arguments from faith and reason with both working together (like two wings) in the defense of human liberty. We tend to admire Christian stoics as well as just plain stoics, and skeptical, questioning Christians as well as just plain skeptics. After all, God sends his sun to shine and his rain to fall on all alike.

In actual human beings, we find, there is more overlap, more inter-penetration, of intellectual traditions than conventional wisdom usually portrays. In fact, we note, nearly all Americans draw intellectual nourishment from roots sunk down in traditions of reason and of faith alike. We do. And so – we believe – do women and men of the Enlightenment, such as Ms. Allen and Professor Ellis [Novak critics---TVD]. In this country, persons of the Enlightenment owe much to particular biblical conceptions and traditions; and Jews and Christians owe much inspiration to the Enlightenment."
And that's what it's really all about, in between the shouting, a whisper spoken when all the thunder dies away. The culture wars may now resume; we return to our regular program.


Brad Hart said...

Correct me if I am wrong, but wasn't Wood and Novak on the same radio program when these comments were made? I wonder how much of it was simply Wood trying to be polite?

I for one think Wood is a genius. His books (particularly "Radicalism of the American Revolution") are incredible.

Nick said...

The ultimate test for the doctrine of separation of church and state in America is the acceptance and integration of homosexuals into American society. Even though the far right continues to pit gays against established religion and churches, most homosexuals are religious and attend church services. If the far right continues to push for the ultimate exclusion of one of the most reviled group of humans from society, based on their own particular views about god and religion, the 'wall" between church and state will collapse and any other group with animus against them based on religious grounds will be in danger of being disenfranchised from american society.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad, I pulled Novak's remarks from here:

..which Jonathan Rowe addressed here

Jesus4Me2Beternity said...

Nick, this is a farce. Your notion that a separation of church and state will help the gays of America is just plain dumb.

The founders would have never stood for such a ridiculous idea.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well there are a lot of gay friendly churches. Integration of Church & State -- supporting churches that perform same sex marriages -- might foster gay rights. And separation might help the churches which want to hold to the authenticity to the antihomosexual message of the Bible and Church traditions.

I've noted before -- a personal note, so I don't oft-stress it on this blog -- separation of BOTH Church & State AND marriage & state is what will permit gays (and their supporters) and religious conservatives (and their supporters) to live in peace.

I also think such an approach well harmonizes with the Golden Rule.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oy. This isn't necessarily a church and state matter. One need not use the Bible to oppose redefining marriage.

The state's involvement with marriage has been about property, and at its best in the olden days, in defense of the helpless women and children left behind by horny old men.

I imagine if there were no such thing as children and the tendency for men and women to conceive them, things would be different. [The "women" part is a leftover from the times when a woman could barely make her way alone economically even under the best of circumstances, and in principle at least, is inapplicable today.]

But I imagine this Jesus commenter is correct regardless, that it would be difficult to drag the Founders into this with any but the most speculative and tortuous lines of argument. Not that it isn't attempted, hehe.

Jonathan Rowe said...

On a somewhat slightly different note, it's interesting how the law oft-lags behind not just technical, but also social changes (which itself is reason for less govt. law, more private law).

Alimony law as I understand it, is totally antiquated in today's gender equal world.

The idea behind alimony was that men would work outside the home, women inside the home and if a man divorced his wife, she would otherwise be without a means of support.

That rationale is almost entirely missing from today's world.

bpabbott said...

I'm in complete agreement with Tom's comment that "this isn't necessarily a church and state matter." However, as religion has become so entangled in the debate, it appears to me that what needed not to have been defined by religious rhetoric, has become so.

Personally, I am disappointed that both the gay marriage and abortion debates have become so embroidered by religious rhetoric that those justifying their positions with such may have disenfranchised themselves.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Personally, I am disappointed that both the gay marriage and abortion debates have become so embroidered by religious rhetoric that those justifying their positions with such may have disenfranchised themselves.Ben, I agree with the thrust of this. Those who trot out the religious rhetoric have zero effect---no, no, a negative effect---on people who don't share their religious beliefs.

The Bible is true because it says it's true? I never got that one.

As for the strict sense of "disenfranchisement"---as in "the franchise," as in having a vote---out of good ol' fashioned American pluralism, religious beliefs are as valid as philosophical ones. Few of us can fully articulate that which we believe is true, or put it into the other fellow's language.

Which is OK. For many people in a democracy, be it Bible-thumpers or the MSNBC crowd, mebbe the best advice is shut up and vote. The more you talk, the more votes you gather for the other side.

We see this sort of thing all the time in our microcosm here, eh, Ben?

Nick said...

Jesus4Me2Beternity has left a new comment on the post "A Brief Time-Out in the Culture Wars":

Nick, this is a farce. Your notion that a separation of church and state will help the gays of America is just plain dumb.

The founders would have never stood for such a ridiculous idea.

So what, in your view, will help 'the gays' as you put it, obtain full equality, or are you in support of excluding us from the protection of the constitution?
Personally, I believe the Founding Fathers, Ben, Alexander, and even Washington, were more advanced in their views about the constitution than you give them credit for!
I am in agreement with bpabbott' s comments that the hard right has entagled civil issues with religious ones.
So, what shall we do with 'the gay"? Set up concentration camps, extermination, sterilization? We have seen these types of attempts in the 20th c. before.
You can also use a more balanced word other than "dumb" in your analysis. Such language belittles us all!